first time I met Noel Stewart was a night I went to a local
bar in Sligo called The Ark, where an old friend of mine, Joe Foley, was playing
with his band, The Showband Boys. It was 2006 and I had come to Ireland to find
work, which I eventually did but that is another story.
The band was a
typical pub group: drummer, bass and two guitarists.
I knew everyone in the band
except Noel. What struck me first about this lead singer was his
appearance. As I recall, he was wearing a bandana and a shirt which
said "The King." I thought it was a little flamboyant for a singer
in a pub group. Anyway, I stayed a while, had a listen and when I
left I said "great stuff" to Joe.
A short time later, my life was turned upside
down when my 16 year old son, Grant, was killed in a car accident. I
returned to the States and literally the day after the funeral, I
was offered a job back in Ireland which I took. As 2007 started I
was back in Sligo and the
Showband Boy's guitar player, Michael "Rip" Carty, hurt his hand at
work and Joe called me to ask if I would help them out on
guitar. For the next few months I became a regular member of the
Showband Boys and got to know Noel and drummer, Tommy Conlon, very
well. We played all types of gigs including parties, pubs, there
might have even been a wedding in there.
From my perspective it was a great time. Not
only did it bring me back to music, which had been my first
love, but it also helped me through the difficult period I faced
after the death of Grant. And it reintroduced me to the pub scene in
Ireland as I had been away for many years. I made some new contacts,
but most importantly for me, I became a friend of Noel's. Before
long, we started getting together for a cup of coffee in a local
coffee house called Costa Coffee in O'Connell Street in Sligo. I say
"coffee," but Noel always had the same thing....a pot of tea "and
make sure there are two tea bags!"
Being with Noel on the streets of Sligo was an experience in
itself. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, knew Noel and said hello, or
"how's the King" and even more amazing to me, he knew them ALL by
name. I would say, "who was that?" And he would tell me not only about
them, but their parents, siblings, everything about them. I learned
my first lesson about Noel....everyone loved him.
We would talk mostly about music and getting
gigs and the band and getting gigs. (I know I repeated that but in
the beginning it really was mostly what we talked about). I didn't
know him well enough to delve into his personal life, but he did
tell me about his past, which I would learn, was a troubled and
difficult time for him. As time went on our conversations drifted
away from music and were about life in general.
at Christmas in 1939, Noel lived in Forthill, Sligo. He didn't talk
much about his childhood, except that I got the sense it was pretty
typical for rural Ireland during and after the Emergency (Ireland's
name for World War II). Noel came to music a bit later in life, I
think. At one point I was trying to figure when he started gigging
and found a newspaper advert from the Sligo Champion which was the first to mention his
band, The Relations. It was dated July, 1967 and he would have been 27. His
wife, Nellie, was the lead singer in the band and his
brother-in-law, Charlie Dolan, the other singer. I showed the
clipping to Noel and although he was not 100% sure, he thought it
might have been one of their first two or three gigs.
The trio were soon very popular and were
playing all around County Sligo. Pubs, parties, weddings. For those
of you who weren't around back then, the late sixties were a special time in Ireland
as the showband era had done much to break the hold the Catholic
Church had on the Irish people and the youth-oriented sixties had
given rise to a new form of entertainment across the island....the
singing lounge. They popped up everywhere and there was plenty of
work for musicians. Although many musicians would go on to careers
in the showbands, others, like Noel, preferred to stay local.
Noel often talked about the heady days of The
Relation's peak popularity in the early 1970's. They were travelling
all across the Northwest. Not only were there plenty of gigs, but
also plenty of drink. Sadly, the drink got a hold of Noel and
although he talked of it often, he was not proud of what went on in
those days. It took a hold of his life and his family, health
and lifestyle all suffered. They sold their house and shop as things
continued to be bleak.
At this point I just want to say that
some people may feel discussing this part of Noel's past is
inappropriate, but to me, it is one of the most important parts of
As far as Noel's health he had to have
heart-bypass surgery in the mid nineties which helped to turn his
lifestyle around. However, life (not being fair), dealt Noel another
blow when Nellie passed away after a lengthy illness in 1997. At
this point I think anyone else would have been tempted to give up on
life, but not Noel. He battled back and
put his life back together and moved forward. This was another
important lesson I learned from Noel, the absolute necessity to keep
moving forward, no matter what life dealt you.
forward a few years to around 2000. Joe was playing regular gigs
around Sligo and Noel, shattered by the loss of Nellie, finally started to venture back out to listen to music
again. Eventually, Joe and Rip asked Noel if he wanted to sing a few
songs and within weeks, he was a permanent member, and then front
man, with the Showband Boys.
Throughout the band's fifteen year history,
they played all the important gigs around Sligo, from the Mayor's
Ball to weddings, pub and parties. At the time, Noel was singing
several Elvis songs and began referring to himself as "The King." It
might sound a bit pretentious, but if you knew Noel, you would know
it was only a joke....but the joke stuck and soon everyone in Sligo
referred to him as "The King."
Fast forward another few years and that was
when I met Noel. The band was very busy and Noel was enjoying life
like never before, although he often spoke of missing Nellie and
would visit her grave every Sunday. Often walking the five mile
round trip at the age of almost seventy.
Noel was always meticulous about equipment,
investing every penny he made (and much he had to borrow) to keep up
with the latest in technology and quality. They were always the best
equipped pub band in Sligo. This lead to several other
characteristics of Noel's which I always admired: his honesty and
Whenever Noel bought new equipment, he sold the old
equipment at half the price he had paid, and often for gear that was
only 6-12 months old and kept immaculately. Many Sligo bands and
musicians today have amps, speakers and guitars they bought from
Noel for very fair prices. We used to joke that he should open a
shop, he was selling so much equipment. Not only would Noel sell
gear for a hefty discount, but often gave back the buyer 10 or 20 Euro
"for luck." (An old Irish custom which died out years ago.)
But that was Noel.
The quest for the best equipment also lead to
many road trips where Noel and I (and sometimes Joe), would head off
in the car to Dublin, or Derry, or Glenamaddy, Athlone, Enniskillen,
or Raphoe in search of the best deal for an amp, speakers, or
guitars. These trips were always great craic with Noel joking,
telling stories about the "good old days" and an amazing ability to
tell me where every bus we passed on the road was going, when it had
left and when it would arrive at its destination. He could also
generally tell me who was driving the bus.
would stop for a meal somewhere along the way. Noel loved a mixed
grill, McDonald's burgers and from time to time, Kentucky Fried
chicken. They were great days and memories I will always
treasure. It was during these trips that Noel seemed to open up more
and would tell me about Nellie's illness and eventual passing and it
was obvious her absence from his life was one he would never get
over, a void he could never fill. And yet it was always there....the
September 2011, Noel had been complaining about a pain in his legs
for months. Painkillers had not been doing the trick and finally the
diagnosis came that Noel had prostate cancer. Worse again was the
fact that it had moved into his bones and other areas of his body.
Doctors gave him months or maybe a year or so to live. I guess that
was when my admiration for Noel and our friendship went to another
level. He could have easily thrown in the towel, but instead
he fought back with a vengeance. The cancer was not going to get him
As an aside, I have to give thanks and my
utmost admiration to the doctors and especially the staff at Sligo
General Hospital. Despite all the odds of his illness, they gave
Noel the best of
care, including experimental cancer treatments and more importantly
their personal friendship and support. Noel ate his dinner in the
hospital most days and was treated like one of the staff. As usual,
everybody loved him and it showed.
Despite the setback of his diagnosis, Noel
never lost his sense of humour and would often joke about takings
gigs in the months or even years ahead, always adding, "if I am
still here." As a friend, the next few years were sometimes
difficult. Even with the best of medical treatment (Noel went
through everything from Chemo to Radium and more) but he was getting
weaker. It was slow and almost imperceptible but he was walking
slower, and constantly battled the aches and pains which accompany
aggressive cancer treatments with many sleepless nights.
thing which became apparent during this time and another lesson I
learned from this great man was he kept going because he was a
survivor. One year turned into two and then three and to be honest,
I thought Noel might even beat the cancer, but I guess in the back
of my mind, I knew he wouldn't. As he started his fourth year as a
cancer survivor, things began to go wrong. He needed a few stays in
hospital. Getting in and out of cars became harder and harder, he
sometimes had trouble sleeping and it became obvious that this
treatments were becoming less effective and the cancer was reasserting
In hindsight, I guess the "beginning of the
end" started in the summer of 2015. Noel had fallen in his house
getting out of bed and was unable to get himself up. Afterwards he
told me that although he had fallen, he was still trying to pull
himself up by pulling on the sheets of the bed, which just came down
on top of him (always joking about things). Fortunately, Joe Foley
had arranged the night before to call on him
to go for breakfast and found him on the floor. He had hit his head, but more
importantly, his legs were losing their strength. It wasn't long
before he could no longer walk under his own power. He got a walker,
but still insisted he would take it on the bus down to the town and
it wouldn't slow him down....the eternal optimist!
But he never really complained. Once he was no
longer able for the long walk up and down to Sligo town, we would
have coffee at his house near Sligo Hospital. Some days he would
seem a little down and I would ask, "what's wrong." He always had
the same response, "Just feeling a little sorry for myself, but I'll
get over it." And he always did, laughing and joking despite the
fact that he was basically housebound. Around this time, the doctors
shifted their focus from cancer treatment to pain management.
Apparently Noel's heart could not stand another round of Chemo or
Radium. Through all of this he kept on performing with the band. But
it all came to an end the night he played in the Irish House and was
so tired he sat down on his amp, only to discover he couldn't stand up
without help. Only then, did he consider retiring from music.
this point I need to say a few words about Noel's children...
They were there for Noel on a non-stop basis.
His daughter, Hillary, took him into her home for months, providing
a safe environment and ensuring he got the best of care.
He only returned to his own house on his own insistence. She works
in Cregg House, a home for mentally challenged adults and children
and has dedicated her life to serving others. Noel has three sons: Noel
Jr. is in
the Irish army and moved into the house with Noel and looked after
his father until he was called to serve six months on the border
with Syria on a peacekeeping mission. Fortunately he returned a month before he
lost his father. Robert, also in the Irish army, came to Noel's house
every day to find out if he needed anything and to make sure he was
okay. And finally Brian, despite living without a kidney and
requiring dialysis three times a week, was there for his father
throughout this time as
In the end, Noel went quickly. On October 6th,
he was to go into hospital for two units of blood. It would only
take a few hours, but they kept him there because they wanted to
help him get "all his levels right." He was still jovial, joking and
talking constantly about how as soon as his legs were right, he'd be
down the town. But it was not to be.
the next few weeks, he grew weaker and weaker. I visited every two
to three days and could see him slowly withdrawing
from life, sitting for hours and eating very little food. Once he
decided to retire from music, and then accepted that might never
walk again (although we all hoped for the best) I
think Noel had decided he would fight no more.
On October 27th, 2015, at 9:00 am, Noel
slipped away in his sleep. He had not been awake for several days. Nobody could have known he would slip
away that fast. We all thought he would be around for weeks and
perhaps even months so despite months of preparation, his passing
was still a great shock.
Thinking back over the last nine years, I am a better person for
knowing Noel Stewart. He taught me a lot about life. He showed me
that as we age, we don't have to become bitter, we can still hope
and dream about the future even at 75 and suffering from prostrate
cancer. He taught me we should treat those around us with respect
and be honest in our dealings with others.
Throughout the years I knew Noel, he
taught me that there is no purpose in hanging onto the past, as it
is gone and all that exists is today and hopefully, tomorrow. This
was no truer than the day I drove him to Derry to look at some
musical equipment. He surprised me when we were walking down the
street and suddenly said, "I have to go in here." It was a shop that
paid cash for gold. Inside, Noel took two wedding rings from his
pocket and traded them for cash. When we left, I asked him why and
he said, "maybe someone else can use them."
He used the same logic every time he sold a
piece of equipment at a bargain cheap price saying if he held onto it,
it would only clutter his life and someone else might as well get
the benefit from it if he no longer needed it. Being a pack rat
myself, I doubt I will ever have the courage be that brave. Noel taught me how to live life simply and
without the stress and pain of past regrets. What is gone is gone
and what's done is done. Worrying or pining for yesterday will not
help you face tomorrow.
Noel is gone, but his life was important. He
will be sorely missed and I doubt I will see his like again.
Goodbye old friend.